Mike Batiste needs no introduction to those even remotely familiar with the recent history of European club basketball.

Mike Batiste

Mike  Batiste
Position: PF, C
Age: 43
Height: 204 cm
Weight: 102 kg
Birth place: Inglewood, United States of America

A three-time EuroLeague champion with Panathinaikos, the California-born athlete started out as a forward only to be turned into a center at the hands of Zeljko Obradovic and become the epitome of the undersized big. Standing at only 2.03 m, Batiste almost defined an era, staying with the Greek giants for nine consecutive years before adding another one in the afterglow of his decorated career.

After he retired in 2014, Batiste began a career as a basketball coach. He started out as an assistant coach with the Canton Charge of the NBA G League. He then worked in the NBA, as a player development assistant for the Brooklyn Nets, and later as an assistant coach of the Charlotte Hornets and the Orlando Magic. However, Jamal Mosley, who succeeded Steve Clifford on Orlando's bench, opted to work with new staff members. The 43-year-old has agreed verbally with the Washington Wizards to assume another assistant position but the deal has to be in black and white in order to take effect.

The last time Mike Batiste was in Greece the calendar read 2017. Panathinaikos were hosting Obradovic's Fenerbahce for the EuroLeague playoffs match, with the Turkish team sweeping the series and eventually being crowned as league champions in Istanbul. Four years later, the man who everyone in the country calls "the bulldozer" because of his imposing playing style and physical strength, is back in Athens for almost a week.

The reasons for his visit, as well as his views on a wide range of topics, lie below. Batiste touched on the current status of Panathinaikos, Obradovic taking over Partizan Belgrade, Mario Hezonja's return to Europe, the fate of European coaches in the NBA, and passing down the torch to other mobile centers like Kyle Hines.

However, there's another important detail: Mike Batiste connected with BasketNews through a video call from Vassilis Spanoulis's apartment in the southern suburbs of the Greek capital. That's another proof of their friendship being stronger than any bigotry surrounding the famous (or infamous for that matter) Panathinaikos-Olympiacos rivalry.

What brought you back to Greece and Athens this summer?

Just missing friends that I consider family. I had plans of coming to Greece when Panathinaikos and Barcelona were going to meet in the EuroLeague playoffs (2020). But the pandemic happened and it shut the whole world down, putting two more years on the two that I wasn't here. That's almost half a decade, really too long!

So, once the world opened back up, I told myself: "I want to go to my second home." Everyone was asking me: "People go to Greece for vacation. Why are you not on an island?" I have time for that but I wanted to come here and see people who are important in my life.

I'd like to congratulate you on the initiative to hold an online auction with some of your personal collectibles from your time with PAO in order to make a donation to the fire victims in Greece. Have you got any numbers on the items sold?

I think it's close to 15,000 euros. Whatever money that I raise, big or small, I just want to help in any way that I can. Being raised in California, I also had a fire scare myself. Evacuate from your home for 3-4 hours and feeling defenseless and hopeless, was a very difficult moment. Once the fire started in Greece, you felt for the people and the country. I talked to my agent Nikos Lotsos and my friend Kostas Sotiriou and I came up with the idea to auction off some memorabilia.

The 2009 trophy of Panathinaikos is a symbolic part of history because of the players that were on that roster and what we accomplished that year. The shoes were from the last European title that Panathinaikos won ten years ago. I think one of the shoes still has the confetti from the celebrations. That's also symbolic. I wanted to do something to help, big or small.

You were pictured at Panathinaikos training session at OAKA the other day. How did you end up there (again)? Whose idea was it?

That's the first place I wanted to visit. When I got up there, the team was training and I knew that they were there. I got to talk with Alvertis, meet with Dimitris Priftis and Giorgos Kalaitzis; teammates of mine that I went to war with, but also guys who respect me and whom I respect. I was able to talk to the team for three minutes about developing habits, having a routine, sticking with it, and being disciplined.

Kendrick Perry picked my brain for 15-20 minutes about the European game and how you adjust to the lifestyle in Greece. I gave him a lot of advice in terms of making changes for yourself as an individual and also as a team, as a unit, and try your best to accomplish that goal, succeed or fail.

What's your view on the new Panathinaikos team?

They have a lot of work to do. I know they are in a difficult time right now. Showing your love and support for a team and organization you admire, you want to be there as well in the difficult moments. I know in my mind and in my heart that - rather sooner than later - things will turn around. I think Diamantidis and Alvertis are doing a good job right now. They're still learning how to do this stuff. It's very difficult to learn on the flight, but as each day goes by, each experience will prepare them for the best.

How can they return to being the winning organization they once were?

That's a really difficult question. I'm not really involved in how they make decisions or how they are financially. That's not my business. But the level of players that we had was different in terms of talent and the EuroLeague is more difficult now. That's OK, it's part of basketball - and that's what people have to understand. You're not going to have success every single year. The dynasty that we had when I or Zeljko were here it's very hard to repeat. I hope and pray that one day they'll return and when it happens, I will be there to support them.

In all honesty, did you ever see a GM in Dimitris Diamantidis?

No way! I didn't see that at all. But I remember reading an article about him saying that he felt it was his duty to return to Panathinaikos and help any way he can. He also wished that other guys also would return. To come here and give advice to players who want it, I'm willing to give it back in the best way I can.

Credit Vangelis Stolis

Mario Hezonja was an athlete that provoked waves of enthusiasm when he arrived in Greece. Did the two of you use to talk about the Greens while in the States?

I remember my time in Charlotte. I think he was in Orlando or New York. We always crossed paths. You don't have a lot of time to talk to players. There's a time and place for that. But for a two-minute conversation, like: "You were one of the best players Panathinaikos has seen you play." It did happen at that time. Last year, his situation was what it was. He had the opportunity to come to Greece and play. I think he accomplished some good things but now he's off to another chapter in his life.

Having witnessed his NBA struggles in Orlando, why do you think he had such a hard time there?

I don't think he found the right system that catered to his style. There are really great players in the NBA that can adjust to a lot of different styles, philosophies, and tempos of the game. But certain players need that right system. I just don't think he found the right team for that.

Do you believe that Europe is the ideal place for him to grow and be himself?

For sure. He played in Barcelona before, he plays national team ball, understands European basketball, and also the stress and pressure of the EuroLeague. He's still young and we'll find out what's going on.

Another important summer development was Zeljko Obradovic returning to Partizan Belgrade after almost 30 years. Did you expect that?

No, I didn't. But it's a great look for him to return home, to the team he helped become a European powerhouse. I think that's the same he's going to do now. They're in the EuroCup, but I'm pretty sure they're the favorites to win. They'll have to work for everything. Nothing is given and coach Obradovic understands that. He will give the message to his players every single day. I think they will take that message and buy into the work ethic.

Since you know him inside out as a coach and as a person, what do you think motivates him the most?

Winning. He's still a competitor and has a burning desire to teach the game of basketball so that his players soak up all the knowledge and experience that he has from all the teams he's coached. His resume is flawless and as a player to be under that kind of umbrella with a coach of that stature, sky is the limit.

Would you ever imagine him coaching in the NBA? He has said that all discussions and negotiations that he had with NBA teams fell out when he was asked to do a job interview.

It has to be the right organization for him; to trust him fully so that he is capable of reaching success, support him even when he doesn't succeed. I think he loves where he's at right now. It's going to be very difficult for any team to try to persuade him to come over to the NBA.

Do you agree with him that the NBA doesn't trust coaches from Europe, even those who are actually Americans like David Blatt? Messina and Scariolo returning to Europe after their assistant coaching terms were over provide another example.

I agree with a lot of things that coach says. Over here in Europe coaches have a lot of leeways to provocate and get stuff done. With my old-school routes, I think that's the way things should be done; you should be pushed to the best of your ability, regardless of how the message is. As long as it's constructive criticism and it stays within the game of basketball, you have to find a way to process that message, regardless of how it was delivered. We have to understand that he's also in the heat of the battle to win.

In the NBA, players have a lot of power and I think that it would be difficult (for him) to fight for leadership and make things go his way. That's why an NBA team has to cater to those skills because he's second to none. If that happens one day, I think he'll definitely succeed there. But I believe that he's comfortable where he's at. I know he's getting a little bit older and you don't know the challenges that he wants for the next ten years of his career.

Credit Greek Basketball Federation

The philosophy in the NBA is very different and European coaches have a foundation. They make you work for everything and you have to earn it. A lot of guys are drafted off potential and are awarded playing time because of their status - and that's fine. It's part of the game. But the other stuff you have to work for it. Guys coming to the NBA very young, they have to learn how to be a pro, how to develop habits, and be disciplined.

It's very crucial for a young player to come to the NBA at 19 years old. The first 2-5 years of their careers are very crucial. If they don't adjust to the style of the game and block out the distractions of the game that come with the territory, it's going to be difficult to sustain a career and have longevity. It's only a matter of time until your time runs out if you're not disciplined to what you set out to do. Every kid that gets drafted has high goals and ambitions for themselves. But to reach those goals, it takes a lot of sacrifice and commitment. You have to sacrifice time, your body, time away from family and friends.

For me as a player, being away from my family in America was tough. There were days that I worried about them and their safety. I prayed that nothing bad would happen to them. I always leaned on my faith and the spirituality I was raised up within my household. Coming here and enjoying the wins and the titles made my decision easier to accomplish more.

You started your coaching career in the NBA at Brooklyn as a player development assistant in 2016, then moved to Charlotte in 2017 to assume an assistant coach position, and for the last three years, you have been with the Orlando Magic. However, you started out as an assistant coach for the Canton Charge in the NBA Development League. How easy was the transition from the G League to the NBA? How have you managed to establish yourself in the league?

There's really not much difference from the G League to the NBA. The talent level is a little bit different but the speed, the rules, and the pace of the game are the same. So, it's really about those kids adjusting to that. In high school, there is no 24-second shot clock and in college, they still play with a 30-second shot clock. The pace of that level is totally different. Guys who come from good programs struggle because everything that they learn in college doesn't translate over to the NBA game. Hopefully, they will change that stuff pretty soon.

When you spend a long time in Europe, you have guys who are professional at 14, 15, or 16 years. At a very young age, they are catered to by the veterans on the team. They teach these guys who to be pros at a very young age, take care of them, and make sure they're up in the morning or in the gym. I think what's also missing in a lot of NBA locker rooms is having older veteran guys who have had some experience in the league and teach young guys how it's done.

In Brooklyn, we signed Luis Scola to be our backup center to Brook Lopez but we also brought Luis in there to show the young guys how to work. Luis was very calculating and methodical in how he worked, got in the gym early, did his weights and all the activation for his body. Then, he got on the court and sweated every ounce out of his body. You have to put your body through difficult moments as well to reach the pinnacle of your success. We know about Luis Scola and his luxury career.

Over the last years, we've seen quite a few former EuroLeague players (Arturas Karnisovas, Trajan Langdon) take on important roles with NBA teams. In what way would European experience be helpful or translatable into efficiency at the NBA level?

I know that European basketball has a big-time staple on the NBA game right now and it's going to keep manifesting in that way. You see a lot of European players, pick and rolls, ball and body movement, cuts through the paint, week side action... To play a certain style you got to have the style and the personnel for that. The NBA is a copycat league. Everybody wants to shoot the three and that's fine. But if you don't have the players, you have to find a different way. Not everybody is Golden State. There was a very unique situation with that team.

Everybody wants to play with this unbelievable pace in the regular season. Is it a formula that I would follow? It all depends on the personnel that you have on the roster. If you have guys that can run the floor and get easy buckets, let's do what we have to do. But if you have a team that's not getting up the floor, you'd just want to get the rebound, give the ball to the point guard, call a play, get to your space and spots and execute your offense.

Credit AP-Scanpix

Do you feel ready to take over a team as head coach?

I would say not right now. I still got a lot of learning to do and I'm fine with that. My goal is to be a head coach but I know it's a process. I'm not about to fall out of bed and it's going to happen tomorrow. Watching basketball is easy for me. I've done it all my life. So, you sit in front of a computer and the game has a way of talking to you without saying a word. When you have that connection with the game, you use it to your advantage. Hopefully, one day I will get that opportunity. I want the pressure and I want to see if I can accomplish that goal, succeed or fail.

If you were to point to the single most positive and the most negative change that the EuroLeague has undergone since you were still playing, what would you say?

The most positive is that everybody plays everybody now. You can't hide from anybody. There were also times in my day where we didn't play CSKA all year until the final. You want to play against those teams during the season to get some kind of feel or flow. I know somebody may say that there are too many games, but that's the goal that the EuroLeague was trying to get to. My time ran out and I couldn't be a part of the new stage.

The EuroLeague game is at a beautiful moment right now. Hopefully, one day the Final Four comes to America, to the Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center so that people in the States can see the talent there is in Europe. A lot of Americans don't see these European guys unless at the Olympics or World Cups or until someone gets drafted. To see how those guys go through the same process as NBA players: the stress, the struggle, the winning, and the losing. Hopefully, they will find a way to put European basketball on a platform in America. All the games coming at 13:00 or 14:00 during the day and then watching NBA games late at night.

Of all the undersized centers that followed in your footsteps, Kyle Hines has had by far the biggest success. You have witnessed first-hand his rise to prominence with Olympiacos. How do you explain his longevity at a time when more traditional - big centers are in fashion again?

I think that number one is that he takes care of his body. Kyle walks through the door right now, you see his physique and that he's in shape. He has taken advantage of that. When you treat your body well, it can go a long way, even when you're hurt or have a small injury. We also saw that with Giannis during the playoffs, when he hyperextended his knee but he trained so hard on every muscle on his body that he was able to recover in a few days. That's part of the commitment that athletes must make. For myself, I never was a bad eater, but when I got 26, I started seeing the benefits of food and how it helps you recover.

There's also his work ethic. He had early success with Olympiacos, winning back-to-back EuroLeague titles. When you reach success like that at a young age, you gravitate to that and you want more of it. So, he just found a way to stay within the best version of himself on the court to help himself and his teammates. That has gone a long way, from Olympiacos to CSKA, and last year he was in a Final Four with Milano. He still has a few more years in the tank. I hope he plays longer than me. You root for a guy like that.

If you can inspire a teammate or an opponent, that does good justice for yourself and the game. I hope that I laid a platform down for other Americans to succeed over here. When you look at Kyle Hines, he's the staple of the small-ball center right now. I was very happy to have passed that torch.

I once asked Hines which player he would love to have had as a teammate. His answer was: "Diamantidis. I always loved the way he played and I know that he and Mike Batiste had a great connection." Which one is your pick?

That's tough! I would love to play with Juan Carlos Navarro. I think he was one of the best guards at his time. When you're watching your opponent from video, you wonder how it's like to set a screen for him, get him open and what he would do after. The list can go a long way, but he's a player that I really wanted to play with.

Even when Saras was with Maccabi and I went to Moscow for the Final Four, I thought: "Man! It would probably be nice to play with him one day." I didn't know it was going to happen two years later. It was a surreal moment because I actually watched this guy win the title. I got that feeling of the Final Four championship and I wanted to experience it. I got my taste of that in 2007, but when Saras came to the team I was like: "This is crazy!"

When you have a line-up with Spanoulis, Sarunas, Diamantidis, it was a mesh made in heaven! It was also very difficult to stop our pick-and-roll offense. Whatever we did, it was going to be a good shot for the guy with the ball, the guy who was rolling, or the guy on the weak side corner.

Credit Nikos Paraschos/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

Speaking of retired EuroLeague legends, did you have any talks with Spanoulis on life after basketball?

Of course! I'm actually sitting in his house right now. I spent the whole night and day with him. We went to have some sushi, had great conversations about the past and certain memories. We talked about family values, life, character, and what his vision is going to be after basketball. He has a lot of ideas and I can't wait until you guys see what he has in store. I can't spoil any moments right now, but he's definitely going to stay around the game of basketball. Right now, he's enjoying time with his family, and rightfully so.

Has he made up his mind on what's next?

He wants to be around the game, but I don't think he's put a staple on one thing. When you retire, you have a lot of things running through your mind. There's no manual to this. It's a figuring out stage that he's going through.

When you retired in 2014, was it an easy decision for you to make and accept?

Your mind tells you: "Hey, you're able to play one more year." The year I left Panathinaikos to go to Fenerbahce my body went through a lot of stuff. I had a lot of injuries and didn't have the season I really expected. Even before I left, I remember us being in the Gomelsky Cup in Russia and I twisted my ankle very bad. It was a two-month process to recover from that.

Even coming back to Panathinaikos for my last year, when you have to get up in the morning and do two hours of therapy just to practice, it's a different struggle. I knew, probably 3-4 months into the season, that this was going to be the end. But again, your mind always plays tricks on you and tells you: "You're the best, you can do it." I had to come to grips with that. When I got home, my daughter was born and I started thinking about different things in life.

I got a call from David Griffin who was the GM at Cleveland at that time and he had heard rumors that I was 50-50 as to whether to retire or play another year. He told me: "Listen, if you make the choice to stop, I would love to have you in Canton, where you can pass down your knowledge to the younger generation but also see if you like coaching."

I told myself that if I didn't like it, I'd move on to something else. But I started to enjoy what I was doing: looking at the video, breaking it down, and showing it to the team. Then, walking the team through 5-6 plays that your opponent will run, scheming defensive coverages, our communication, and rotation. That's something I enjoy doing.

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